Have you ever shopped for a specific model of car and then suddenly, on the road, noticed that car is everywhere? Or, perhaps, you have been thinking about buying a new television and every other commercial you see an ad for that exact brand of TV. Chances are, you have tapped into your brain’s reticular activation system (RAS).

Back in May 1957, Scientific American published an article describing the discovery of the “reticular formation” at the base of the brain — basically the gateway to your conscious awareness.

The article reads: “It acts as a ‘switch’ of sorts, to turn on your perceptions of ideas and data, the things that keeps you asleep even when music is playing but wakes you up if a special little baby cries in another room.”

In his book, Getting Things Done, author David Allen, a management consultant and executive coach, notes the following:

  • “Just like a computer, your brain has a search function — but it’s even more phenomenal than a computer’s. It seems to be programmed by what we focus on and, more primarily, what we identify with. It’s the seat of what many people have referred to as the paradigms we maintain.
  • “We notice only what matches our internal belief systems and identified contexts. If you’re an optometrist, for example, you’ll tend to notice people wearing eyeglasses across a crowded room; if you’re building contractor, you may notice the room’s physical details.”
  • “If you focus on the color red right now and then just glance around your environment, if there is any red at all, you’ll see even the tiniest bits of it.”

Go ahead, try this and see for yourself!

Understanding the power of our RAS allows us to use intentionality to tap into its powers. Imagine how beneficial this can be when we are setting goals for ourselves or trying to change our behaviors.

As communication skills coaches, we rely upon the brain’s natural processing to help suggest behaviors on which an individual might want to focus their attention. By doing this, we plant the seeds of awareness to one’s own behaviors and set an alert for observing the same behaviors in others. We see that people will then automatically pay more attention to those behaviors that irritate them as well as those that appeal to them and, thereafter, try to model.

Understanding the power of reticular activation provides us with a supercharged tool to help us achieve our goals.

An example of this in action might be if you are aware of using filler words like “um” or “like.” If you set the intention to first simply being aware of your use of those words, you’ll likely notice how frequently you actually do use them. You’ll also probably be paying closer attention when you’re listening to others. You might observe that they use filler words frequently and you’ll recognize how much it bothers you as the listener. Or, alternatively, you might notice how well someone manages to avoid the fillers by speaking more slowly, taking more pauses or finding more meaningful transition words.

This heightened awareness provides you with a model to apply for yourself.

When I am coaching someone on their communication skills, the first question I ask is what the person is aware of about themselves. I ask them about what they do well and what they would like to correct. Instinctively, most people are much more keyed into the skills that present a challenge and they can rattle off a long list of behaviors they would like to correct. I then follow up by asking if they have been given the feedback or if they just noticed it on their own.

Most of the time, the individual has received some type of feedback that set off their RAS and, since then, they notice it in themselves all the time. With the feedback they received, their awareness was triggered by their RAS. At the end of every coaching session, I remind people to pay attention to others around them, thereby activating their RAS again so they can experience those behaviors from the receiver’s point of view.

Understanding the power of reticular activation provides us with a supercharged tool to help us achieve our goals. For me, as a coach, my RAS allows me to spot the behaviors in those I coach but, as a person, I use the same tools to help myself improve. I am as likely to fall prey to the contagion of filler words as much as the next person and, like all humans, tend to mimic behaviors of others, even when they are not the best for me to use. Therefore, I have to be especially conscious of what I am doing and I set my intentions for how I want to show up and use my RAS to keep me in check.

Here’s an exercise for you to try out your own reticular activation system.

  1. Write down a goal you have related to your communication skills. For instance, you might want to reduce your use of filler words or open up your body language.
  2. Now, pay attention to what you observe in others. There’s a good chance you’ll be more subconsciously focused on those exact behaviors in others which will be a good reminder of what you don’t want to do.
  3. Finally, if you feel up to it, comment on this article with your communication skills goal and I will give you some tips that go beyond RAS.